Guest post by Amy Oestreicher
I’m the only person in the world that feels this hopeless.
How can things ever get better?
I must be crazy.
I feel so alone.
These thoughts raced through my head for years.
When Life Takes A Detour…
These were thoughts I had when my “thought-out” life took a detour.
What’s a detour?
A detour is a curve in the road, a bump in a path, a big sign in the middle of your trip that says sorry, you have to go THAT way.
Nobody expects a detour to happen in life. Its what happens when we think we have things planned and all figured out, and then we’re thrown a curveball.
Believe me, I didn’t expect to be in a coma my senior year of high school.
It’s a mouthful, I know. That was my detour. I thought that in just a few months my path would lead right to college.
For a long time, my detour felt like a dead-end. After 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I didn’t know where my life was going anymore. As my stitches healed by one, my thoughts seemed to unravel day by day. My detour took me to a very scary place, into a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – PTSD. Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories.
My Scary Detour
The detour I traveled was a very rough path . Although it became worth it, for a while I didn’t want to keep going. I lamented why my path had gone this way, and, plagued with anxiety and hopelessness, I wanted to give up. Now, I’m an artist, actress, author, playwright, “survivor-to-thriver”, newlywed, and lover of life’s beautiful detours – but I had to get there. The path was long-winded, scary and challenging. When you don’t know where you’re going, its stressful and anxiety-provoking. You can feel very alone.
The most important thing I learned about a detour? You can still live a happy, healthy fulfilling life. I even got to college – at 25!
But the great part about a “detour”? You get to travel a route you never would have expected. The road may be tough, long, winding, and seemingly out of the way, but what I finally realized is, it’s the twists and turns in life that ultimately make us who we are.
Stress Makes Us Feel Alone
Stress, anxiety, can make us feel like we’re entirely alone in our struggles. College, especially, can be a breeding ground for stress – a turning point in our lives where we’re independent, perhaps for the first time. Doors become open to us that we never even knew existed. We realize we have the power to make choices, which can be equal parts empowering and frightening.
When I was going through my traumas, the biggest thing I needed to know was that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to reach out to a friend, a mentor, or a community of people, just to listen, to show understanding and compassion.
I realized I wasn’t alone in my stress, depression and anxiety when I saw how mental health issues and emotional concerns were a campus-wide issue. I learned that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students. About one-third of college students across the United States had problems functioning because of depression in the last 12 months; almost half said they had felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year, 20 percent said they had seriously considered suicide in their lifetime, and 5.8 percent said they had attempted suicide.
Plagued with their own anxiety, as well as taking on the anxiety from their families many students appear more stressed than ever. The office hours of my professors were jam packed with students asking for advice on how to handle situations outside of the class room or are looking for advice on what to do. Counseling centers are operating on waitlists and students are not learning how to self care properly. Students may feel uncomfortable reaching out to health and counseling services. Worse, students may be unaware that these resources exist.
The Frightening College Reality
I was shocked to find out, in a 2011 NAMI study, that 64% of college dropouts were for mental health-related reasons, and that, of those, 50% never accessed any mental health programs or services. 73% of college students report having experienced a mental health crisis while in college.
This inspired me to develop a program that combines Broadway theatre and mental health advocacy. Now, I deliver this keynote to colleges and universities, providing hope, health, and saving lives.
I never thought that 10 years after I was supposed to start college, I’d be doing a different kind of college tour!
Now that I’m also in my third year of college, I’ve realized that physical and mental health issues are things we all think about, even if we don’t label what we experience as an “illness”.
We all need to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go like we expect it to. We all could use a few tips on learning how to love who we are. We all have detours in our lives, and we become empowered when we trust that we can travel those detours and come out okay – even better! This “detour” in my path has turned into the richest time of my life and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. That’s why I call it my “beautiful detour.”
Gutless & Grateful, the honest one-woman musical story of my life, shows the great and not so great aspects of a “detour” in life. How I traveled my “detour” was by trial and error – and it still is. But what I realized is that when I finally spoke up ,asked for help when I needed it, and shared my story, I was finally able to heal and move on from it. Gutless & Grateful is the story of how I became a Detourist.
Sharing Our Stories
Why am I sharing my detour? It takes “guts” to talk – and sing – about my sexual abuse ,my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better. But I share to show that things DO get better with patience, trust and resilience.
I share to give courage and a sense of belonging to people who are struggling with all kinds of mental health or physical challenges, but also to help build a campus that gives everyone the kind of awareness and generosity of spirit that makes that world a better place. If we all share our “detours”, we see that our detours are not detours at all. Every road leads somewhere – we just need to hang in long enough to catch the flowers along the way. The more we share our detours, the more we realize we’re not alone.
From my own decade of medical isolation, I learned that nobody can heal in a vacuum. Being able to reach out for help and find support is what helps us realize we’re not alone. This inspired me to start trying to bridge the gap of communication between departments on campus – academia, career counseling, wellness resources, accessibility, and student groups. There can be a barrier between academia and a student struggling with anxiety, campus life transitions, and common adjustments needed for college
The more statistics I read, the more urgent I realized my campus concerns were:
- 67% of college students tell a friend they are feeling suicidal before telling anyone else.
- More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts and 1 in 10 students seriously consider attempting suicide. Half of students who have suicidal thoughts never seek counseling or treatment.
- 80-90% of college students who die by suicide were not receiving help from their college counseling centers
Students often feel embarrassed, afraid or too overwhelmed to seek out wellness resources available to them on campus. Those who are struggling may not even know there are resources that can help. They may feel that if they don’t have a “diagnosis”, “mental illness” physical handicap or learning disability, there is no reason to seek out services, they are not “qualified” to seek out these services, or they fear being “labeled”.
What ends up happening is many students fall through the gap. The resources on campus become compartmentalized and students who don’t necessarily feel they have an issue “significant” enough cheat themselves out of learning valuable life skills.
Starting the Conversation on Campus
Now, my show Gutless & Grateful aims to introduce these resources on campus helpful sources that can build resilience on campus. I’m sharing the story of my life, and then talking to campuses about what students can do to create their own resiliency toolbox – a must-have in order to deal with stress and navigate life’s detours. In the final component of my program, I introduce students to a panel of counselors, faculty and wellness resources on campus, opening the channel of communication between the student body and staff. If we can bridge that gap, we can help more students get the help they deserve. The more students we can help, the more compassionate campus we can create.
A strong campus community is full of compassion, support, and resilience. The more open we are about our struggles – whatever they may be – the more we can normalize needing a bit of help. Resilience is a learned skill, it’s a challenging task, but it is achievable. Through resilience, I learned how to cope with stress, anxiety, and even better, I was able to travel my detour long enough to finally find that beautiful clearing.
How do you learn to love your detours? You follow the path and see where it takes you – that makes you a DETOURIST.
A detourist looks for the upside of obstacles. They follow that twisted path because they’re curious to see where it could lead.
The road may be long, tough, and filled with even more detours, surprises, and unexpected turns.
But a Detourist just keeps going and let’s those twists and turns create an even stronger, savvy traveler.
If you’re a detourist, every obstacle is an amazing opportunity to grow, learn and see all that life has to offer – and who doesn’t like to travel?
Traveling as a detourist can be tough. A detour is not a free ride, but it is a thrilling one. When the road gets rocky, the important thing to know us that were not alone.
So when life gets stressful, or just doesn’t go as you plan, think of it as a detour – and make it a beautiful one. As you travel, remember to reach out and ask for the help you need. Together we’re stronger. Together, we can navigate our beautiful detours.
Get involved in the student Detourist movement here.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-peer specialist, artist, college mental health speaker, author, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning founder of the Fearless Ostomates, actress and playwright. As a survivor and “thriver” of nearly 30 surgeries, a coma, sexual abuse, organ failure and a decade of medical trauma, Amy eagerly shares the lessons learned from trauma and has brought out the stories that unite us all through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking. Amy’s “beautiful detour” has inspire her passionate desire to create and help others. She created the Detourist #LoveMyDetour movement to bring a positive light to life’s bumpy, unexpected routes. Amy is currently touring the country with her one-woman musical, Gutless & Grateful, as a mental health awareness program, advocating for LGBT youth, sexual assault prevention, student leadership and disability advocacy – find out how to bring her college program to you. Visit amyoes.com for more information on her show, art, speaking and private coaching.